By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Let the trumpet sound and play “Taps”
Tuesday was the last day of July. That day was a special one for Black Chicago and perhaps Black America. Fifty years ago, from that day, the city became the first one of the 50 states and seven continents to rename a street after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nearly one week later, South Parkway became Martin Luther King Drive. As Molotov cocktails smashed windows of businesses during riots across the country, Black Chicago was celebrating an historic event that would be copied around the world.
August 8 will be the 50th anniversary of the dedication of King Drive as Black Chicago’s main street.
On July 31, it was quiet. Fifty years to the day, Chicago decided to rename the street after King. From the looks of it, the day the street actually changed will also go quietly, 50 years later.
Amid the bustling neighborhoods on the south side, the 50th birthday of the world’s oldest Martin Luther King Drive will come and go with little fanfare. No proclamations. No speeches. Not even a tribute at the Bud Billiken Parade, which will make its 89th run down King Drive the same week the street turns 50.
Five decades earlier, King Drive was South Parkway. That year, the Bud Billiken Parade celebrated its 39th year, but when the name changed to King Drive, the Chicago Defender described the event as “something very, very special.” The Chicago Tribune, Johnson Publishing Company and all the major television stations had big, elaborate floats in the parade. Publisher John Sengstacke and Mayor Richard J. Daley were the parade’s honorary Grand Marshals.
Whites rarely serve as grand marshal in the Bud Billiken Parade, but Daley became the exception when he came up with an idea that turned heads in Black Chicago and America. He renamed a street after a man he hated in life, but loved in death.
During that time, some 300 residents in the Lake Meadows high-rise on King Drive held a rent strike and held meetings at the West Point Baptist Church. And the Chicago office of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) had called for a boycott of General Electric (GE) products until the conglomerate promoted more Blacks. Compared to numerous unrests in other cities around the country, Chicago had cooled, months after the rioting that ripped through the West Side following King’s murder.
That summer, more than 100 riots erupted in American cities. On July 27, 1968 riots erupted in Gary after police arrested members of a motorcycle gang on a rape charge. Indiana State Troopers arrested at least 30 people who were accused of looting. It was the first test of Mayor Richard Gordon Hatcher, who banned the sale of alcohol and gasoline in portable containers to prevent manufacturing of Molotov cocktails and other firebombs.
During the Republican National Convention in Miami, at least 175 people were arrested and three died during several days of rioting as angry Blacks looted white businesses in the city’s Liberty City neighborhood. Miles away in Miami Beach, Richard Nixon accepted the Republican nomination for president with Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew as his running mate.
In Chicago, Daley was afraid the same might happen in his city during the Democratic National Convention, which was held August 26. Daley had called King a “troublemaker” during King’s trips to Chicago where he led marches for better housing for Blacks. Despite his national popularity, King did not receive as warm of a reception from Blacks in Chicago as he did in the South.
Fearing that angry Blacks would riot, 5th Ward Ald. Leon Despres, a white King supporter, first sponsored an ordinance to rename a street after King. Despres wanted the street to be in the Loop, where King once held a march, but Daley wanted the street on the South Side because he was afraid whites would deface the street signs, according to journalist Mike Rokyo’s best-selling book, “Boss.” Daley threw his weight behind the proposal in a surprise move.
Despres had supported Ald. William Cousins and A.A. “Sammy” Rayner, who wanted the Civic Center Plaza or an expressway named after King, according to an article in the Chicago Crusader on August 3, 1968.
After disagreeing with Despres, Daley, according to the Crusader, who was “… full of anger and emotion,” said he held talks with King supporters and the conversations prompted “him to agree with the many petitioners who wanted South Park to be named after the great crusader.”
After his speech, Daley was given a standing ovation and the council approved the proposal 43-0.
Despres predicted that the street would eventually be known as “Junior Dr.,” but time has proven him wrong.
News of the renaming excited students at Dunbar High School, who made their own Martin Luther King sign and put it up near their school.
On August 8, 1968, South Parkway officially became Martin Luther King Drive. The dedication was held at the Victory Monument at 35th St. & King Drive. News reports estimated a crowd of 400-500 people listened to various speeches by Daley, Ald. Ralph Metcalfe, and Cong. William L. Dawson.
There won’t be any celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of King Drive. The Crusader emailed five aldermen whose wards include King Drive asking about plans to mark the occasion.
Brian Berg, a spokesperson for Ald. Anthony Beale (9th) said, “The ward office did a thorough inquiry and could not find anything related to the 50th year anniversary” of King Dr.
Aldermen Sophia King (4th), Pat Dowell (3rd), Willie Cochran (20th), and Roderick Sawyer (6th) did not return an email from the Crusader as of press time Wednesday.
During the July 25 City Council meeting, there was no mention and no resolution honoring the King Drive 50th anniversary. There will not be another City Council meeting in August as part of summer break. The next one is not until September 20.
This year’s Bud Billiken Parade theme is “Back to School, Back to Work, Back to Life, Back to Bud.” A staff member and organizer of the Bud Billiken Parade said she was unaware that King Drive turned 50 this year, and said there are no plans to pay tribute to the iconic street. There are no banners along the street highlighting King Drive’s 50th birthday.
For decades, King Drive has played a significant role in Black Chicago’s rich history. Chicago’s first Black mayor Harold Washington, journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Defender founder Robert S. Abbott, Crusader founder Balm L. Leavell, banker Jesse Binga, and dermatologist T.K. Lawless all lived on King Drive and some professionals had offices on the street. Millionaire hair magnate Annie Malone, who mentored Madam C. J. Walker, lived on King Drive.
There are now over 1,000 streets named after King Drive in the world, but Chicago remains the granddaddy of them all. Chicago’s King Drive runs from McCormick Place and ends at 115th Street, where a roofing business has been operating since 1927, two years before King was born.
The street goes through nine neighborhoods covering 13 miles, including Bronzeville, Washington Park, Woodlawn, Greater Grand Crossing, Park Manor, Chatham, West Chesterfield, and Roseland.
For its Black History Month edition, a Crusader reporter took an entire weekend on King Drive and counted 67 businesses, 25 Black churches, 20 mansions, 10 grocery stores, seven monuments, five public schools, five gas stations and five public parks, including Washington Park.
The most prominent portion of King Drive runs from the Great Migration statue at 26th St. to 51st St. and Washington Park. Here, weal-thy white Chicagoans took horse carriage rides along grand mansions when King Drive was called Grand Boulevard in 1910. Whites fled the area during the Great Migration and the street was renamed South Parkway in 1923.